Basic Writing

How do I start writing?

A lot of people who want to write think a lot about getting started writing, and sometimes without much success. You know you want to write and perhaps you know what you want to write, but it’s getting the process going that is the most difficult part. In writing this blog post I had to think years back to how I began writing – putting together the nuts and bolts that led to me being an author.

It’s easier to think of writing, not as an activity that you need to do, but as an extension of yourself. Think first about who you are:

What hobbies and interests do you have?

Do you have any writing experience, and if you do, what did you learn that you can use?
Did you learn how to write essays, paragraphs, or how to plan?
Are you good at taking notes?
What are your writing strengths and weaknesses?

After having done this assessment you will see where your skills are as a writer, and this can be a good basis for moving forward. I was a proficient writer at college, having studied history, sociology, politics, and film studies, among other subjects, and so when I started writing some strange ideas about semi-organic robots on a sandy planet, it made sense to jump in and write paragraphs of ideas, made-up technologies, thoughts, and concepts. It was a natural extension of my own abilities.

What if it doesn’t make sense?

It’s a common fear for writers to stop writing or to hesitate starting because they’re worried it will come out in a jumble. It probably will come out in a disorganised jumble, and that’s okay; you can sort it out later. The first step is to write it down in the first place. If it isn’t written down, it won’t ever be good writing!

I once started writing a story, and I was really pleased with how it was going, until I stopped after 14 A4 pages. I realised something was wrong, and that though I was proud of what I had written, it didn’t make much sense and was too specific. There were no big events and no major changes that affected the main character. Having realised something was wrong in the first place, I was able to plan how to move forward but if I hadn’t written the 14-page jumble, I wouldn’t have been able to progress my story.

I have too many ideas. Help!

This is a very good thing that you have the imaginary fuel to use. Understandably, your struggle is prioritising your ideas or organising them. It may be helpful to write down the ideas in a list format, and then you can write small descriptions about them to develop them. When you have this list you are able to see from a glance which ideas you should use, and you could even categorise them. Good organisation and preparation may be a key to understanding the world your characters live in.

How do I build a world?

World building for some writers is a fascinating and effortless process, but for others it can be daunting and difficult to know where to start. In your head you could have a few vague ideas or images of what your world looks like, but creating an in-depth fantasy or science fiction world, if it isn’t based on reality, is a challenge. It doesn’t help when you look at how expansive and well developed many science fiction and fantasy worlds are. It can put you off even attempting, but don’t fear. All great endeavours need a start.

I was lucky enough to already have a few ideas when I wanted to create a world. A few strategies helped me build that world. I first wrote down a lot of ideas, in my paragraphs, which made little sense whatsoever. I imagined what the ideas, concepts, or technologies looked like, and gave them names, and that was about it.

Then I wrote the ideas all into lists, which I put into separate categories in different pages, to create a fact-file. This fact-file was invaluable in building my imaginary world and as a source of reference. I left gaps between each name so I could add descriptions later, if I hadn’t already thought through the idea. The fact-file was just a collection of lined paper sheets, which I hole-punched and stuck into a ring-binder. On paper! No scary streams of blank computer pages await; only lined paper you can write on at your leisure. Start writing a few ideas down and leave gaps between these ideas, on a few pages. It’s a simple way to begin your world building.

I don’t have any ideas. Help!

Think first what you enjoy doing, and what defines you as a person. Then, start an exercise in ‘what if’ scenarios. They could help you explore ideas that are similar, based on what interests you, and yet different enough to pique your interest.

If you’re still struggling then I suggest engaging in more creative hobbies, which may help grow your imagination. If you’re not creative at the moment, there are likely other people who are, and their creations are available to digest everywhere. Reading is a good place to start, especially if you aim to write. However, reading isn’t the only place where imagination resides: some people are really into films, video games, science fiction and fantasy, steampunk, literature, poetry, comics, art, history, museums etc. They are all good places to learn about new things and take an interest in other people’s creativity.

I can’t write legible English. Should I bother writing?

You should consider writing, absolutely. Though writing is more of a struggle for some people more than others, the fact remains that improvement doesn’t happen overnight. When I started writing, every other sentence didn’t make sense and there were spelling and punctuation errors everywhere. It was convoluted, and a disaster to read. But that’s okay because I kept at it and learnt how to avoid repeating writing mistakes.

Keep writing, and you will start to ask questions about why you wrote things one way and not another, or you’ll see from an outside perspective how untidy some parts are to read, even for yourself. This is part of the process of learning how to write better English. Some basic guides, or having a good friend to read your writing and offer encouraging and constructive feedback can also help you improve. One or two friends have spotted things over the years to me that I completely missed, and because I took the feedback seriously I never made those mistakes again. I was lucky enough to have a brother who also wrote. I saw how he wrote and offered him feedback, and he did the same for me. We were able to share knowledge about writing. It just shows you that poor English doesn’t have to be a barrier to writing … there are people out there willing to help … but do yourself a favour and don’t give up.

Do I need to plan a story?

The short answer is that you don’t ‘need’ to plan a story. If your friend has planned a story and has then gone on to write an 80,000 word novel and is gloating about it then that is his/her way that works. You need to find what works for you, and this is essential.

Try planning a story yourself. If you run into an obstacle, leave it a few days and then return to it or have a think why it’s not working. (If it is working, you don’t need to worry.) Move onto a different strategy: storyboarding, writing paragraphs and drafts, drawing pictures. Write the titles of your scenes. Imagine your story. Try different things and stick to them long enough to be sure that they are not working before moving onto something else. We all get stories started in our own way, and doing a proper plan isn’t right for everyone. By trying new things you can develop an understanding of how you can work towards a story.

When I started I jumped into writing scenes. It got things going. I worried later if things were going wrong and that is how I was able to extend my writing or improve it.

How do I plan a story?

Do what works for you. You can research topics you are interested in and write them down. You can write down a random assortment of strange ideas, like I did. You can try a more methodical approach by doing a story grid, with what happens in each scene and chapter, or a beginning, middle, and end approach. Write down the main characters and give them a list of traits that make them unique. Write down what makes your world or settings unique.

If you’re struggling to create a plot, my first strategy was to write a history of my race of beings and then to pay particular attention to what changes there were in society that affected them. This gave me an idea of what time the characters lived in, and what would be happening next. I also put these changes into categories: political, technological, geographical.

There is no set way a writer should plan a story, though doubtless there will be those who tell you there is. You’re the writer and you need to grow with your plan, and the best way that can happen is if you do what you feel works, and plan how you like to plan. You will see more growth this way. If you want to incorporate different plans that have different strengths later, then you are free to do so, but first create a plan you are comfortable with.